Congratulations on that iPhone! Your cumbersome travelpak of cell phone, PDA, laptop and portable margarita blender is a thing of the past. (OK, so the iPhone can’t make margaritas. Yet.)
The buy was easy. Everyone wants the hot new thing, which remains the hot new thing until the very moment you walk out of the store with it. Offloading the leftovers is the hard part, especially for anyone who gives a passing thought to going green. Simplify the decision by starting with this question: Are you smarter than a fifth grader?
“Even a fifth-grade student knows it’s going to take many steps to take apart a monitor,” said James Kao, founder of Greencitizen, an environmental recycling company in the San Francisco Bay Area.
What Kao means is that for all the free services available — the companies or government agencies that invite you to throw big piles of junk into a dumpster — very little thought goes into where the stuff actually ends up. It’s no surprise to anyone that e-waste is one of the great environmental issues of the 21st century.
So whether you’re going green or not, here are some smart ways to get rid of last year’s gadgets:
- Sell it Dedicated individuals reap some rewards through eBay or Craigslist. But if the device is more than a year old, it isn’t likely to yield much. At SecondRotation, a Palm Treo 650 in perfect condition fetches an estimated $32. (As an alternative, you could win some reputation points at Freecycle, an online swap meet, where participants trade free goods under the guiding principle of “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”)
- Donate it Try giving it away. The tax write-off would come close to the sale amount anyway, and the best part is that you’d be helping someone in need. For example, domestic violence groups collect cell phones and either distribute them for emergency use or resell them as a way to raise funds. PDAs are growing in popularity on the donation front; to commemorate World AIDS Day last year, health information companies Skyscape and Satellife launched a program to collect PDAs so doctors in Africa could receive long-distance medical advice and information. Schools are a popular choice among those with a spare computer, although in most cases the equipment needs to stop first at a refurbishing site.
- Recycle it This has become the preferred option; it’s also the most confusing part. The Basel Action Network (BAN), a Seattle-based watchdog group, is the AAA of the fight against e-waste. The group aims to enforce the Basel Convention, which prohibits the export of hazardous materials to developing nations. The ingredients in electronics read like an inventory list of Dr. Kevorkian’s medicine cabinet. Arsenic, cyanide, mercury, lead and other toxins seep into the air and groundwater all over the world. Although 170 countries support the pact, the United States has not signed. And among the nations that have signed, many have violated it. “Most of the companies in America do not follow the international standard,” says Yuka Takamiya of BAN.
Strategies for eco-friendly donations
Look for a company that tracks serial numbers and has a system of accountability in place. Aside from checking BAN’s Web site, one of the easiest ways you can gauge a company’s good intentions is to check its policy on older goods. If you can’t get rid of that 20-year-old TV that has five pounds of lead, it’s a good sign that, as Kao says, the group involved is “cherry-picking” the best resale items.
“Then the rest of the stuff they sell to a broker who sells to another broker, then in two to three steps it’s in China, India, Pakistan, Africa, Vietnam,” he says.
Companies like Greencitizen accept some items for free and charge fees for others, promising accountability for each item’s disposal. Greencitizen is one of 37 U.S. recycling companies recognized as environmental stewards.
Protect your privacy
The environment isn’t the only thing that needs protection when you unload old equipment. Your personal information is vulnerable, too. In a 2003 study, MIT students purchased 158 used computers and found 5,000 credit card numbers and other sensitive identity information on the hard drives. Yet so many people continue to think moving files into the recycling bin is sufficient. Not so. It is essential to do a full “wipe” of the drive.
John Ryan is a journalist who has lived in Silicon Valley for 12 years. He writes about TV-related technology and the Internet. Despite offering advice on how to dispose of gadgets, he will get rid of his GPS running watch when it is pried from his cold, dead wrist.
Image credit: A. Carlos Herrera